College & Workforce Readiness

Reporter’s Notebook

December 13, 2000 3 min read
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School-to-Work Conference Tackles
Movement’s Limitations

The school-to-work movement has raised students’ career awareness, but in many cases has failed to successfully meld academic and workplace experience, several researchers said at a national conference here last week.

Participants at the two-day conference, who gathered to discuss the future of a program whose federal funding will end next October, grappled with the achievements and limitations of the federal School-to-Work Opportunities Act signed by President Clinton in 1994.

The legislation provided seed money for state and local agencies to stimulate stronger links between businesses and schools to help students learn more about careers through such programs as internships and job shadowing, or more formally through selecting career majors.

“We are entering a crisis period in school-to-work—financially and intellectually,” said William Stull, a senior research associate with the Mid- Atlantic Laboratory for Student Success at Temple University, which sponsored the Dec. 4-5 conference.

“It seemed to be an ideal time to bring together the top researchers and people involved with school-to-work practice to take stock of the movement,” Mr. Stull said of the conference, titled “What Do We Know About School-to-Work: Research and Practice.”

To help sustain school-to-work initiatives, Mr. Clinton in October established the National Task Force on Preparing Youth for 21st Century College and Careers, co-chaired by the U.S. secretaries of education and labor. The task force will help state and local agencies locate resources for building on existing school-to-work efforts. How well such programs can sustain themselves after the federal money dries up varies from state to state, participants agreed.

Research papers presented at the conference ran the gamut from how various programs are governed to their impact on racial and ethnic minorities. Other presentations considered the role of career academies and how other countries have fostered links between school and the workplace.

A number of discussions centered on the challenge of persuading parents, students, and educators that the school-to-work concept can be an effective vehicle for school improvement at a time when the standards movement has commanded most school districts’ attention.

Mary Jane Clancy, the executive director of the Education for Employment office in the 208,000- student Philadelphia school district, said school-to-career efforts have made learning more relevant for students, particularly those deemed at risk for dropping out, and have bolstered students’ academic success.

“You can’t forget this is about increasing access for students who have not had access,” she said. “For the first time, our children are sitting in the boardroom—not cleaning the boardroom.”


Richard Western, an associate professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, delivered perhaps the most critical review of the school- to-work approach. While Wisconsin’s school-to-work initiative has enjoyed enthusiastic support from Gov. Tommy G. Thompson and education leaders, Mr. Western said, it has never had a clear agenda with a specifically tailored academic component.

Participation rates in the work-based portions of the initiative have been flat in Wisconsin, according to Mr. Western. Only 1 percent of 11th and 12th graders participated in a youth-apprenticeship program last year. The state had projected a 20 percent participation rate by 2000, he said.

“The term ‘school-to-work’ isn’t being used much anymore,” Mr. Western said. “Implementing the state’s standards and assessment program is clearly the top priority.”

But school-to-work programs have had a positive effect on minority youths, said Francisco Rivera-Baitz, an associate professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Mr. Rivera- Baitz’s research shows that, despite the perception of many observers, minorities are not being channeled into less intensive school-to-work programs.

In fact, participation in some of the most comprehensive activities, such as apprenticeships programs, are higher for Hispanic and black youths than for whites, Mr. Rivera-Baitz found. His research indicates that minority students who take part in school-to-work programs also take more math and science classes than their peers who don’t participate.

—John Gehring

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A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2000 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook

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